10 tips for gaining weight healthily

Sophie Edgington - Nutritionist | 02 Jan, 2024

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It's easy to think you 'flip the rules' for weight loss to gain weight. So instead of avoiding calorie-dense foods, you actively choose them! However, it's not quite that straightforward.

It's important to avoid the temptation to head straight for indulgent foods we all know are high in calories – such as takeaways, fried food and chocolate. Although these are fine in moderation, and will most likely contribute to weight gain if they lead to a calorie surplus, they have less nutritional benefit than other healthier choices. They are often high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and an excess intake of these nutrients can lead to an increased risk of things like type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol – regardless of whether you're a healthy weight or not.

You should choose both calorie-dense AND nutritious foods – this is the winning combo for healthy weight gain!

Eatwell guide

1 Start with a good 'base' for your diet

The golden rules to follow are:

  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day – dried, tinned, frozen and fresh all count! Variety is key – get a mix. 100% fruit juice can also contribute – but it should only make up one of your 5-a-day as fruit juice contains more free sugars and less fibre.
    Tip! The Nutracheck app automatically tracks your 5-a-day as you add food to your diary. Plus, the app also shows at a glance how much of your sugar intake comes from fruits and vegetables versus other food sources. To see this in the app, tap the white chart icon top right on the diary screen – the sugar bar in your bar chart shows fruit & veg sugars in dark green and other sugars in light green. Click here for more info.
  • Base your main meals around starchy carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, pasta and bread.
    Tip! Wholegrain varieties – brown rice, wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta – can provide up to 75% more fibre than the refined white versions and have less impact on your blood sugar levels because they are digested more slowly.
  • Choose lean protein – such as skinless chicken breast, eggs, Quorn, tofu and pulses. Aim for at least two portions of fish every week – one of which should be oily, such as salmon or mackerel.
  • Limit saturated fat intake from foods like fatty and processed meats, cakes and confectionery. Instead, choose foods with 'good' unsaturated fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, oily fish and olive oil.
  • Aim to have at least three servings of calcium-rich dairy foods each day – milk, yogurt and cheese. If you don't eat dairy, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives such as soya drinks and yogurts are also good. One portion = 30g cheese (a piece the size of a matchbox), 200ml milk or a 125g pot of yogurt.
    Tip! Opt for full-fat varieties of these foods for added calories, e.g. full-fat milk, not semi or skimmed. But be sure to keep an eye on your total saturated fat intake across a day to ensure these don't bump this up too high.
  • Keep hydrated – aim for 6-8 glasses of fluid per day. All fluids, with the exclusion of alcohol, count but high-sugar choices should be limited.

2 Add extra toppings

Toppings are a great way to easily add extra calories to a dish or snack without realising you have!

Start with a healthy and nutritious base, such as porridge, then sprinkle on a handful of chopped nuts and seeds. Or have a fresh mixed salad or dish of pasta, then pour over an extra glug of olive oil.

These options will add extra flavour, plus calories, and are rich sources of good fats, essential for heart health and they help lower cholesterol. Nuts and seeds are also rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect our cells from oxidative damage and maintains healthy skin and eyes.

Tip! For more nutritious toppings, try nuts, seeds, freshly dried or stewed fruit, sliced egg and plain Greek yogurt.

3 Replace your usual butter or spread

Get creative! Forget the spread – try avocado, houmous and no-added-sugar peanut butter (or any other nut butter you fancy – there are lots on the market!) instead. These are great toppings for toast or as an addition to a sandwich to add both extra moisture and nutrient-rich energy. Avocados, houmous and nut butter, are creamy to taste, high in calories, low in sugar and a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Opting for an avocado will boost your 5-a-day intake too!

4 Opt for full-fat

I mentioned getting three portions of dairy food per day (or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives) to get the basics of your diet right. This is to reiterate the point – if milk is a part of your usual diet (or dairy alternatives such as soy, rice, nut and oat milk), try swapping to whole, full-fat varieties until you have reached your goal weight. As mentioned, just keep an eye on your total saturated fat intake as these full-fat versions are much higher in saturated fat.

5 Layer up the nutrition

By this, I mean think carefully about the combos of food you are eating and max the nutrients in one meal sitting!

Breakfast examples: Have a few slices of wholegrain toast, spread with nut butter and top with banana slices. Or top your morning porridge with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a sprinkling of dried cranberries.

6 Drink your calories

Drinks are great for getting in some extra calories. Smoothies are a good choice you can make in advance, plus you can add healthy extras such as wheat germ, iron-rich leafy greens, nut butter, protein powders and seeds. Experiment with ingredients to find your favourite combo. For more inspiration check out our blog on how to build a great smoothie.

7 Choose naturally nutrient-dense foods

Try to pick foods that pack in the nutrients. Good choices are lean meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, pulses, oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts, oats and full-fat dairy foods, e.g. milk, yogurt, cheese.

Buns

1 Eat at regular intervals

Ideally, every 2-4 hours to avoid a drop in energy. Aim for 3-4 small meals and at least two snacks per day.

Our bodies need a continuous energy supply to fuel daily activities, from our basic bodily functions to supporting physical activity.

2 Make small, manageable changes

Start by adding in extra snacks. Then increase the total amount of food you eat over the day by upping your meals' portion size.

When trying to gain weight, you want foods that pack in many calories and nutrients for a small serving, so you don't have to eat vast quantities to meet your calorie target. For example, dried fruit – a handful of grapes turns into a tiny portion of raisins but equates to the same calories.

With this in mind, try making homemade 'energy balls'. Mix rolled oats and chopped dried fruit and nuts with a nut butter of your choice, shape into balls and wrap in baking parchment. These are convenient, nutritious snacks to graze on during the day.

3 Avoid drinking before meals

Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day as recommended, but don't drink immediately before eating to avoid feeling full before your meal.

Exercise

Tip on exercise

Don't underestimate the benefits of exercise. It may seem counterproductive to burn calories when trying to gain weight, but I can reassure you certain types of exercise can be the perfect accompaniment to your healthy eating regime.

Rather than focusing on aerobic exercise that burns many calories, incorporate some strength training into your routine to help build muscle and keep you looking toned as you gain weight. Squats, lunges, wall press-ups, and calf raises are all great examples of exercises that use your body weight and can be easily performed at home and help build up lean muscle over time. YouTube is a great place to look for inspiration.

Exercise is essential if you're looking to gain muscle mass rather than simply gain weight. High-protein foods such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, pulses, protein bars or protein shakes should be included as a post-training snack to ensure maximum recovery.

Tip on setting targets

Be realistic. Aim for a steady weight gain rate to give your body time to adjust to your changing diet. It's healthy to expect a weight gain of 1-2 lbs per week when energy intake levels are increased by around 500 calories a day, but an increase of between 300-500 calories per day is a great place to start. Some weeks you may gain more, others less – weight gain isn't linear – but the important thing is that it is going in the right direction!

Exercise

Tip on managing your emotions

Check in with how you are feeling. Although gaining weight may be a positive step forward for you, the process itself can be mentally challenging. It can be difficult to get out of the habit of under-eating, especially if you don't really enjoy food or it has become an ingrained behaviour. Our weight and body size, like other physical characteristics, is very much a part of our identity, and these conflicting feelings are entirely valid and normal as you embark on your journey to gain weight. Allowing yourself to break down barriers can be unnerving but greatly rewarding in the long term!

Things to consider if weight gain feels difficult:

  • Focus on your end goal – whether that is to feel healthier and more confident, to fit into clothes at the back of your wardrobe, or a physiological change such as the return of your menstrual cycle.
  • Do it for you – it's your body and health, so make sure you are gaining weight because you want to and feel ready to, rather than to please others. This will also make it much more likely that you maintain your goal weight long term.
  • Overpower your normal hunger cues – when trying to gain weight, you may not be able to rely on your usual hunger cues as these could be too infrequent. If this is the case, you need to try to eat regardless of whether you feel physically hungry. This can feel strange at first, as it goes against our instinct, but it may be necessary to reach your overall goal.
  • Be kind to yourself – take the time to celebrate every success, no matter how small.

Links for further reading:

Weight gain: why it’s important to be a healthy weight

Eatwell Guide

How can I gain weight safely?

10 strength exercises to do at home

Nutritionist Sophie Edgington (ANutr), BSc Nutrition is passionate about practising evidence-based nutrition and debunking the multitude of inaccurate myths that so readily surround food and health information. Her goal is to ensure we are all able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding our health.

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